The Kyoto Protocol is an "international agreement risen under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change" or UNFCCC, signed in 1992 and entered into force in 1994.1 While the Convention only encourages industrialized countries to control human induced emissions of greenhouse gases (GHGs)2, the Protocol commits them with binding limits to an emission reduction strategy.
Even though scientists have been raising several concerns about its vague "environmental effectiveness", the Protocol still represents, today,
the most significant international policy step for the climate issue. Indeed, the protocol fixes both a collective and a country-specific emission reduction target with respect to 1990 values3. The Protocol was adopted in Japan on 11 December 1997, during the Third Session of the Conference of Parties (COP), and it entered into force on 16 February 2005, after the ratification of the Russian Federation in November 2004, that allowed the total Parties to represent at least 55% of the total carbon emissions, the minimum amount required for the Protocol ratification.
Every country is therefore given a
certain number of Assigned Amount Units (AAUs) that represent the right to emit a specific amount of GHGs.
By signing the Protocol, Annex B countries4 agree to control their impact on climate by legally binding and committing themselves to cutting down their anthropogenic GHG emissions by at least an average of 5% below 1990 levels, in the five-year commitment period 2008-2012. These developed countries, which are seen as the principal responsible for the modern levels of GHG concentration in the atmosphere, are allowed to reach the emission reduction either by (i) limiting fossil fuel consumption or (ii) by increasing the net carbon sequestration in terrestrial carbon sinks (IGBP, 1998). Moreover, in order to meet the targets, countries may take advantage of both national and international measures. The latter, or flexible mechanisms, help to reach the emission reduction targets at the most cost-effective way. They are the Emission Trading Scheme (EU-ETS) also known as the carbon market, the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM), and the Joint Implementation (JI).
In the market of carbon emissions, units and removals can be sold by a seller who reduces its emissions more than what it was asked to, to a buyer who emits a quantity which overcomes its maximum emission target. Under this frame, polluters in excess are economically penalized, while sellers are rewarded for having reduced emissions (below the target level), or created removals. It is worth noticing that if trade takes place, both seller and buyer benefit of it and the action generates a cost cut as well as a greater gain for both of them. Based on the same principle, the CDM (Art. 12 of the Protocol) allows industrialized countries with caps on emissions to execute projects for reducing greenhouse gases (GHGs) in developing countries where no emission reduction targets apply. In particular, the country which implements the project earns emissions rights in the form of carbon credits (CERs: Certified Emission Reduction Units) that can be traded and used to meet the Kyoto reduction targets. The host Party can benefit from foreign investment and technology transfer. Finally, the JI (Art. 6 of the Protocol) offers the possibility of executing projects in other emission-capped countries, to reduce the sources of carbon or enhance the removals by sinks. The specific implementation rules of the Protocol (including monitoring and compliance procedures) can be found in the 2001 Marrakesh Accords adopted during the seventh Conference of Parties (COP). The members’ compliance with the rules of the Protocol, together with the reliability of the emission data used to assess compliance, are the two key factors on which the Protocol effectiveness
depends. Parties are therefore monitored by means of the annual emission inventories and the national reports that they have to submit at regular intervals. In addition, a Compliance System supports them in case they encounter any problem in achieving the target. Both the Convention and the Protocol also assist countries in developing technologies and techniques to adapt and improve resilience to climate change.
Another crucial key factor for the Protocol implementation and effectiveness is represented by the international cooperation and the provision of financial support to developing countries and to countries with economies in transition from the Convention's Financial Mechanism.
Even though it is a first effort, the Kyoto Protocol is normally considered an important step towards a global emission reduction regime to stabilize climate. It embodies the essential structure for future global agreements on climate change and after the first commitment period of the Protocol (2012), a new framework needs to be developed, negotiated and ratified in order to deliver more stringent emission reduction targets in the light of the new findings of the IPCC.
1 See the website:
2 The GHGs are carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, hydrofluorocarbons, perfluorocarbons and sulphur hexafluoride (see Annex A of the Protocol).
3 The year 1990 is the baseline for all emission reduction targets in the Protocol, with a few exceptions.
4 The 39 emissions-capped industrialized countries and the Economies in Transition (EIT). For more information on this, see the Kyoto Protocol at

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IPCC, 2005. Carbon Dioxide Capture and Storage - Bert Metz, Ogunlade Davidson, Heleen de Coninck, Manuela Loos and Leo Meyer (Eds.). Cambridge University Press, UK..
IGBP Terrestrial Carbon Working Group (1998). The Terrestrial Carbon Cycle: Implications for the Kyoto Protocol. Science, pp. 1393-1394
THE KYOTO PROTOCOL. Downloadable at:
THE KYOTO PROTOCOL (other information on):
United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC)

Editor: Melania MICHETTI

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